Reviewing ‘The Silver Chalice’

If a church has a history that stretches back to the 1950s, that church’s library has a copy of The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain. Dollars to donuts, I am not even kidding. The copy in my high school library came from a church (one of the Baptist ones, I think), and my own copy came out of a Methodist church that was thinning its collection.

Costain wrote fairly popular historical fiction, the other book that has its own Wikipedia page (and movie) being The Black Rose, which I also read. These suckers seem really well researched, as they have detail about clothing, language, and customs that make it seem like Costain had traveled to the Middle East, though I couldn’t find anything that confirmed that.

The basic plot is that a young silversmith, Basil, is selected by Luke the Physician to build a holder for the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, the Holy Grail. (Interesting thing is that that holder is based on an archaeological find.) And there are three major subplots underneath that main narrative.

Subplot #1 is that Basil was the adopted son of a rich merchant, but was cut off from inheriting when the merchant’s slimy younger brother bribed a witness to say that Basil was sold as a slave. Basil is bought out of slavery by Luke the Physician, but Basil plans to get his revenge on his pseudo-uncle and inherit his father’s wealth.

Subplot #2 is Joseph of Arimathea’s granddaughter, Deborra. Joseph of Arimathea is the one bankrolling Basil’s freedom and the project for the Chalice. Deborra is a young, pretty heiress who takes a liking to Basil, choosing to (mild spoilers) marry him to get Joseph’s money out of his Pharisaical son’s hands. It’s not a smooth romance, of course, but it’s only a little bit teeth-grindingly annoying, and it ties into Subplot #3.

Subplot #3 is the magician Simon Magus, based on the Simon in Acts 8: 9-24 who offered Peter money to be able to perform miracles. Costain turns him into an illusionist-type magician who’s got some screws loose, with a beautiful assistant named Helena who Basil once knew in his adopted father’s house. Helena forms the third corner of the love triangle.

The contrast between the two main women is very much Madonna-whore. Deborra is sweet, gentle purity-pure-pureness while Helena is exotic and seductive sluttily-slut-slutness. Way to be subtle, Costain. It’s not like women are capable of having more than two types of personality. But sarcasm aside, they’re pretty well-fleshed characters for as obvious as they are.

In contrast to George MacDonald’s work, it’s obvious that these were written by a 20th-century American. (Well, naturalized American. Costain was born in Canada.) This book treats slaves and poor people as, well, people. MacDonald could treat individuals as people, but with the class as a whole, or in context to someone of higher status, he slipped back into classist assumptions and norms. Booooo.

But what actually might be the most controversial thing in this book is the treatment of demon possession. As in, this book frames it as psychological junk and not actual demons. Of course, this would only be controversial to Biblical literalists, who emphatically insist that demons are real and personally make sure that all the wrenches are all up in your gears, as if The Screwtape Letters were real and not, y’know, satirical fiction. And don’t quote that “our greatest success was to convince them we aren’t real” at me. That’s an interesting idea, but it’s not really a valid argument.

Now, the book doesn’t deny that the supernatural exists, but it’s very, very rare. Simon Magus’s “magic” is very pointedly illusion and trickery, in contrast with Jesus and the stuff the apostles pulled off. But we only see three supernatural things “onscreen,” so to speak. One, the Chalice kinda glows in the dark. Woo. Two, at the veeeery end, Luke gets some kind of prophetic vision that seems a little cheap because of course the author is describing aircraft and missiles as a first-century man would describe them. Three is kind of a spoiler, so I’ll just say it was another vision. It’s very much not the “faith will move some literal damn mountains” stuff that a lot of current Christian fic likes to do. Which is just as well because the book brings up some martyrdom stuff that’s kinda awkward to juxtapose with “faith will move some literal damn mountains,” because then the audience would just be all, “okay, then why don’t they faith-blast their way out of prisons and lions’ mouths?”

So The Silver Chalice is very well put together and a solid read. However, I can’t really call it a classic; it just feels a bit too pop-literature-y. But it’s good pop literature, with a multifaceted story and genuinely interesting detail. Though I might throw in a brief warning that those two things contribute heavily to a 533 page count, if time available for reading is a concern for you.

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4 thoughts on “Reviewing ‘The Silver Chalice’

  1. However, I can’t really call it a classic; it just feels a bit too pop-literature-y. But it’s good pop literature, with a multifaceted story and genuinely interesting detail.

    But aren’t most classics “pop literature”? I know the Lord of the Rings was, and probably still is, considered to be pop literature by the literary establishment. Ender’s Game is very literary — containing lots of nuance and allusion to classical mythology — but it is also very accessible. Orson Scott Card complained about the unfair science fiction ghetto.

    So, when you call a book “pop literature,” do you simply mean that it’s accessible to people who aren’t English literature buffs, or do you imply that its complexity or quality is less than more legitimate works of literature?

    Great review, by the way. Its an interesting read even without having read the book, which is the benchmark of an effective review.

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    • Yeah, I am talking in terms of snobbish high-lit standards, but I’m not saying that pop lit is worthless. Hell, I took a class on Western pop lit, as in cowboys and John Wayne allusions. Basically, pop lit just serves a different purpose than high lit. But I hesitate to call Silver Chalice a classic for even just the Christian fiction genre, like I might some of George MacDonald’s, GK Chesterton’s, or especially CS Lewis’s work. I think it lacks the scope, that is, the philosophy those other guys offer. And as for high-lit and the sci-fi ghetto, Kurt Vonnegut’s work (I’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five) plays a lot with sci-fi elements, so they’re not irreconcilable. Have you read much high lit from after 1950 or so? I didn’t until I got into college because they’re less common than Jane Austen or Mark Twain titles on those “intelligent and educated people read these” lists. And Jane Austen and Mark Twain are easier to come across than Thomas Pynchon in my area.

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      • Have you read much high lit from after 1950 or so? I didn’t until I got into college because they’re less common than Jane Austen or Mark Twain titles on those “intelligent and educated people read these” lists.

        I don’t think I’ve read high lit at all, unless you include 19th-century classics, in which case I’ve read The Scarlet Letter and 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Probably others. And I’ve read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea — not sure if you’d consider that to be high enough.

        The closest thing I’ve probably read to recent high lit would be Gene Wolfe’s The Knight, but that’s part of the sf/f ghetto.

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